The importance of diverse and representative boards at Ongo Homes

Karen Cowan, 25 September 2023

I've spent 25 years working in the social housing sector, progressing from Officer level to Head of Service. My passion has always been equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), and I've worked tirelessly to embed these values within Ongo Homes.

At Ongo, we've not only achieved but taken immense pride in building a strong and inclusive culture.

In 2014, we earned the 'Investors in Diversity' award from The National Centre for Diversity. Two years later, we achieved the 'Leaders in Diversity' recognition, and we've maintained it ever since.

Ongo is also ranked 44th on their 'Top 100 Most Inclusive Workplaces' list among over 300 organisations across various sectors and industries. This is a significant achievement and we're proud to have received it.

However, to sustain and build on these achievements, we must remain committed to holding ourselves accountable and driving continuous improvements. Our EDI group, comprised of both colleagues and customers, serves as a cornerstone in this journey. We meet regularly, develop annual action plans, and closely monitor our progress, all with a deep sense of pride in our organisation's commitment to EDI.

The need to improve board diversity

One of the tasks the group completes annually is a full review of the diversity profiles of board, colleagues and residents, to make sure we are a representative organisation and housing association.

From this review we identified underrepresentation of age, ethnicity and disability at board level, so we got to work to change this.

This mirrors findings from the NHF’s latest EDI national data report: How diverse is England’s housing association workforce?

This shows 44% of board members are female compared to 54% of the workforce and 58% of residents. Only 10% of board members were disabled versus 24% of the population.

Boards across housing must better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. Boards that reflect the full diversity of their communities and workforce are proven to make better decisions, foster innovation, and build trust - leading to improved outcomes for all residents.

Taking action to improve representation

To address this at Ongo, we partnered with Housing Diversity Network (HDN) to facilitate sessions looking at unconscious bias and board responsibilities to EDI, board appointments and succession planning.

The board agreed and published their EDI commitment statement and objectives roadmap, looking at where we were and where we wanted to get to. This is reviewed regularly by them and the EDI group, with progress updates shared on the website.

Following this we launched an exciting programme in partnership with HDN. It helps us to recruit trainee board members from diverse backgrounds, making our board more representative of the communities we serve.

This two-year programme provides support to individuals to develop their skills and knowledge with training, and the chance to shadow meetings and network with colleagues from other housing associations.

What’s changed?

We've since recruited four new members, improving representation and lived experience across ethnicity, disability, and age and tenant experience.

This shows a huge improvement and is something we’re really pleased with. It also demonstrates our genuine commitment and willingness to keep going further to become a more inclusive housing association.

Going forward we want to improve representation at board level in terms of disability. This has been added to the roadmap and will be an upcoming piece of work for us.

As a sector work remains to ensure our boards reflect the communities we serve. The NHF’s EDI data report provides a roadmap, recommending boards address their own diversity and foster inclusive cultures. They’ve also launched a Chairs’ Challenge supporting boards across the sector to create a vision and plans for diversity, with guidance and resources.

Why is equality, diversity and diversity important?

Well, that’s very easy for me to answer. I truly believe that everyone has the right to fair and equal treatment but we must also recognise and celebrate the fact that we’re all individuals. After all, diversity is the one true thing that we all have in common. 

My vision has always been to get others to understand and embrace diversity, to show respect for one another, and to promote and provide equality of opportunity in every aspect of everyday life.

Boards that include a diversity of backgrounds and experiences are also proven to make better decisions. As a social housing sector, we must lead the way in inclusion.

Let's use the NHF’s latest EDI data report and recommendations to continue striving for change. Our communities deserve boards that fully reflect the residents we serve.